TUCSON, Ariz. — A sunset ride on horseback this fall, through a forest of giant cacti in Saguaro National Park, fulfilled the dreams of a childhood spent devouring Zane Grey novels. But even that perfect ride has competition for my favorite moment in Arizona. Can anything really top waking up on the Grand Canyon’s rim to a swirling snowstorm that dissolves into a double-rainbow? Or chasing the sunset in the Monument Valley from one mitten-shaped sandstone formation to the other?
From many years of visits, I have distilled my ideal, one-to-two week road trip to Arizona’s highlights. I have traveled it in all seasons, watching for occasional snow road closures north of Flagstaff in winter and for summer days in the 110s from Phoenix on south. Here are my favorites.
SOUTHERN DESERT MISSION: As I steered my horse back toward the trail, to take one last picture as I neared the end of a two-hour ride in the desert outside Tucson, Remington balked.
The white quarter horse from Bobbi Houston’s Horseback Riding must have read my mind. Forget the photo. I was fighting down the impulse to gallop back into the sunset. That’s the effect of southern Arizona’s Sonoran desert, washed over by silence and muted gray-green forms. The deserts are mesmerizing like no other landscape. But they are anything but empty. The thousands of saguaros here have stood sentinel for centuries. They don’t even start growing their iconic arms until they are about 70, and they can live more than 200 years.
There is no better place to get lost among the saguaros and their desert buddies — fuzzy cholla and spindly ocotillo plants, fluorescent green palo verde and mesquite trees — than in Saguaro National Park, its two districts a few miles on either side of downtown Tucson. Every single pullout on Gates Pass Road, the best route to the western park, is worth a photo.
Just south of Tucson on I-19, so close to the Mexican border that highway mileage is in kilometers, stands the improbably grand sign of another kind of presence in this desert: Mission San Xavier del Bac. Built in the 1700s by Franciscan friars, the blinding white Spanish Colonial church still ministers to the Tohono O’odham reservation.
Coming in from sun-drenched surroundings, the mission’s dark, candle-scented Baroque interior is dazzling, every inch covered in vividly painted faux architectural details. The cherubs and saints must have been good company for their sculptors in the utter solitude.
PHOENIX OASIS: A couple of hours north along I-10, through flat desert sprouting moonlike peaks, is Phoenix, an oasis of manicured modernity in this dreamscape. Favorite spots in the area include the Heard Museum with its superb collection of American Indian arts, and the resorts and art galleries of Scottsdale, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Phoenix.
I always try to fit in two mini-road trips from Phoenix. If I have a day, the Apache Trail goes from subdivision to remote Old West within a few miles east of the city. The road climbs into the Superstition Mountains, down cottonwood-shaded canyons and skirting lakes. In early spring, when the cacti bloom white, violet, and gold, it’s the Western equivalent of cherry blossom time.
If I only have a couple of hours before flying out of Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, my last desert escape is to South Mountain Park, a 10-minute drive south of downtown, and up its snaking road to Dobbins Lookout. With views past stands of saguaros into the whole metropolis and its 360-degree desert cradle, this is the spot for a south-central Arizona sunset, bar none.
RED ROCKS EVERYWHERE: Red is the color of my "can’t miss" stops on a loop across the northern deserts where Navajos and Hopis have lived for centuries. Vermillion rock faces reflect in the still waters of Lake Powell, and along with the sunsets, they color the Monument Valley, the Painted Desert and the juniper forests of Sedona. But my perfect sunset was on a lonely stretch of road on the way to remote Canyon de Chelly, on a fragrant sage-covered mesa as daylight faded from pale pink to indigo on the uninterrupted horizon.
The loop starts less than two hours north of Phoenix with a detour off I-17 through Sedona and shaded Oak Creek Canyon — the crowds start dropping off here. Then it’s a mile-crunching, mind-erasing drive east, through Petrified Forest National Park (which includes the Painted Desert badlands), and north into Navajo tribal land to Canyon de Chelly. My choice spots along its southern rim drive are the otherworldly slender Spider Rock, jutting 800 feet out of the creek-lined canyon floor, and White House Ruin. The hike to White House Ruin takes you past fields and pastures to cliff dwellings carved high in the sheer rock wall of the canyon centuries ago. Mystery still shrouds the ancient Pueblo peoples who created these structures and others across the canyons of the Four Corners area.
From there, loop back northwest to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which straddles the Arizona-Utah state line. A short self-guided drive offers a look at spectacular sandstone monoliths, in shapes ranging from a W to mittens.
GRANDEST OF ALL: Theodore Roosevelt said every American should see the Grand Canyon, but once is not enough. It’s different at sunset and sunrise, in a snowstorm and in moonlight, whether you’re alone or among tour bus hordes. Endless shapes, colors and chasms can be seen from every viewpoint along the canyon’s 20-mile-plus South Rim drive. You can’t help but feel small here.
My latest, unlikely perfect Arizona moment came on a drab stretch of interstate between Tucson and Phoenix an early fall evening. A sliver of moon perched above the pitch-black expanse of desert, while mountains on the western horizon cut a low silhouette against the last yellowish tinge of the set sun. Spellbound, I pulled over, until the sky turned all sapphire and stars broke out in the still vastness.
Back home, I swapped lavender in my drawers for crushed creosote leaves, which smell like the desert. Whenever I catch a whiff, I close my eyes and disappear into the desert again.